In a 2014 Slate article about the future of libraries, Michael Agresta said, “A library without books was once unthinkable. Now it seems almost inevitable.” The Atlantic recently tweeted an article by Adrienne LaFrance called “Keep the Library, Lose the Books”, in which she states: “Americans love the idea that they love libraries. A new Pew survey published Tuesday [September 15, 2015] finds that while people report feeling strongly about the importance of public libraries in their communities, those people are actually using libraries less and less.” Clearly libraries stand at a crossroad in the Digital Age. So what’s at stake besides real estate and paper books?
Call them what you will–warehouses, storehouses, clearinghouses, meetinghouses, museums, archives, venues, studios, theaters, maker spaces, classrooms, playgrounds, reading rooms, living rooms, technology labs, incubators–libraries have always meant so much more than real estate and books.
Browsing through the American Libraries magazine I get the sense that libraries, more than ever, are about community service and access. How important are service and access in the age of DIY via the internet? Consider this tweet I saw during the worst of the Valley Fire, officially the third most destructive fire in California history.
I remember reading that as the Valley Fire raged out of control, people had to leave their homes so quickly that many didn’t even have time to grab their cell phones. In that instance, to that community, this library’s service and access served as a lifeline.
During the turmoil in Ferguson and Baltimore, public libraries, according to an article by Megan Cottrell in the American Libraries magazine, became places of refuge. A librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore locked her patrons safely into the library while riots broke out across the street. Amid the tumultuous protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown, Cottrell writes: “Not only did the Ferguson library remain open, but while school was closed for a week, Bonner, [the Ferguson Public Library Director], invited kids to come to the library, hosting more than 200 children and dozens of teachers, eventually overflowing to a church up the street.”
Sure we are in an age where a treasure trove of information is available anywhere a smartphone and a signal coexist. But with this constant connectedness to the World Wide Whatever comes striking disconnects: Physical ones in head-down screen trances to emotional ones in the unforgiving harshness of a live-update say-anything forever-archived life. A space needs to exist to bridge, and possibly mend, these disconnects, if not for those of us who remember a life before iEverything, then at the very least for our technology saturated children.
Our children–the heralds and tastemakers of tomorrow’s trends! According to a 2013 Pew Internet survey on library services, “26% of recent library users say their library use has increased” because of children and grandchildren. I can attest to seeing more children than ever at our local library. One Tuesday afternoon, my son and I had to swim through a sea of middle schoolers dropping by the library on their way home. Storytime on Wednesdays and Fridays at our local library is standing-room only. The truth is we are reinventing our libraries for our children. These future, and perhaps futuristic, libraries will give them a place to access humanity, a place to interface with one another; and for those who cannot obtain internet access elsewhere, a place to access opportunity.
In the 2014 Slate article, Agresta points out: “Libraries will only survive if the communities they serve want and need them.” In the Atlantic article, a year later, LeFrance claims: “A Library is a critical institution for the kind of community people say they want to live in.” The link, then, between libraries and the future: the community.
Whatever metaphor a library takes on–be it a treehouse or an amusement park or a conversation–it is, without a doubt, a valuable place that our open-source society needs. It is up to our community to collectively identify our particular need. We, indeed, are all the stakeholders in, and beneficiaries of, our libraries’ transformation.
The American Library Association is officially launching a campaign later this month called Libraries Transform to highlight the ever-evolving critical role libraries assume in their respective communities. The campaign’s raison d’etre: “Because transformation is essential to the communities we serve.” The following infographic shows the trends emerging in librarianship in the Digital Age. It strikes me how far away they all are from real estate and books.
Originally published: October 1, 2015